UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


The Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth

26 January 2021, 5:00 pm–6:30 pm

Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski

Join us for this SSEES Central Europe Seminar Series with Professor Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski

This event is free.

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Central Europe Seminar Series



Was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth put out of its anarchic misery at the end of the eighteenth century by its better governed neighbours Russia, Prussia and Austria? So they claimed, and so too have many Poles. In The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1733-1795: Light and Flame, published by Yale University Press in November 2020, Richard Butterwick argues that the Commonwealth was no failed state, but a political community built on the liberty of its citizens, which overcame profound crisis. After decades of dependency on Russia, it recovered its sovereignty in 1788. That made possible the Constitution of 3 May 1791, the centrepiece of a movement of reform and renewal which widened the nation beyond the nobility and prepared the Commonwealth for the challenges of the nineteenth century. Such was the threat of this 'orderly liberty' to the neighbouring monarchies that the Commonwealth was invaded, partitioned and annihilated. In Light and Flame, Richard Butterwick emphasizes the Commonwealth's potential which was illuminated by the Enlightenment before the immolation of 1792-95.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame
Richard Butterwick

Book cover The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795
Richard Butterwick tells the compelling story of the last decades of one of Europe’s largest and least understood polities: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Drawing on the latest research, Butterwick vividly portrays the turbulence the Commonwealth experienced. Far from seeing it as a failed state, he shows the ways in which it overcame the stranglehold of Russia and briefly regained its sovereignty, the crowning success of which took place on 3 May 1791—the passing of the first Constitution of modern Europe.

‘Masterly. Butterwick’s authoritative and notably well-written account is a major contribution to Polish and European history. As a study of the high politics of the last six decades of Poland-Lithuania’s independent existence, it would be difficult to better’.— Professor Hamish Scott, FBA, Jesus College, Oxford  

About the Speaker

Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski


Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski is Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at UCL SSEES, where he has taught since 2005. In 2014-20 he also held the Chair of European Civilization, founded by the European Parliament in memory of Bronisław Geremek at the College of Europe, Natolin, Warsaw. His research has so far concentrated on politics, religion, ideas and culture in the eighteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among his publications are the monographs Poland's Last King and English Culture (OUP, 1998) and The Polish Revolution and the Catholic Church 1788-1792 (OUP, 2012), and the co-edited volumes Peripheries of the Enlightenment (Voltaire Foundation, 2008) and Social and Cultural Relations in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Microhistories (Routledge, 2019).